Twitter, a tool of choice for dissidents and activists around the world, found itself the target of global outrage Friday after unveiling plans to allow country-specific censorship of tweets that might break local laws.
Twitter insisted its commitment to free speech remains firm, and sought to explain the nuances of its policy.
Critics — in a barrage of tweets — proposed a Twitter boycott and demanded that the censorship initiative be scrapped.
In China, where activists have embraced Twitter even though it is blocked inside the country, artist and activist Ai Weiwei tweeted in response to the news: "If Twitter censors, I'll stop tweeting."
One often-relayed tweet bore the headline of a Forbes magazine technology blog item: "Twitter Commits Social Suicide"
Twitter, founded in 2006, depicted the new system as a step forward. Previously, when Twitter erased a tweet, it vanished throughout the world. Under the new policy, a tweet breaking a law in one country can be taken down there and still be seen elsewhere.
Twitter said it will post a censorship notice whenever a tweet is removed, and will post the removal requests it receives from governments, companies and individuals at the website chillingeffects.org.
The critics are jumping to the wrong conclusions, said Alexander Macgilliviray, Twitter's general counsel. "This is a good thing for freedom of expression, transparency and accountability," he said. "This launch is about us keeping content up whenever we can and to be extremely transparent with the world when we don't. I would hope people realize our philosophy hasn't changed."
Some defenders of Internet free expression came to Twitter's defense.
"Twitter is being pilloried for being honest about something that all Internet platforms have to wrestle with," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "As long as this censorship happens in a secret way, we're all losers."
Twitter, founded in 2006, has embraced its role as a catalyst for free speech. But it also wants to expand its audience from about 100 million active users now to more than 1 billion. Doing so may require it to engage with more governments and possibly to face more pressure to censor tweets.